Designing for dyslexia: a style guide to make reading easy for everyone

The British Dyslexia Association has put out guidelines that aim to encourage designers, businesses and teachers to consider those who struggle with reading and writing when making typeface, colour, spacing and imagery choices.

BBC Reith typeface

When graphic and digital designers create a website, app or a new brand, legibility will be one of the key considerations throughout the process. But will they be considering everyone when they do this, including those who have an impaired ability to read and understand information?

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that affects roughly one in 10 people in the UK, and can have a broad impact on people’s ability to process and remember information, affecting concentration spans and time management skills. But it is best associated with difficulty reading and writing.

Everything from typeface choice, spacing between letters, colour combinations, imagery and glare from a digital screen can affect someone with dyslexia’s ability to read and understand text.

BDA Dyslexia Style Guide 2018

That’s why the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) publishes a set of guidelines annually, which look to educate designers, publishers, teachers and more on how to best organise information so that those with learning difficulties can read with ease.

The BDA Dyslexia Style Guide has been published for 20 years in a bid to improve legibility on screen and in print, and are updated each year with new research.

The BDA has republished its guidelines for 2018, splitting advice up under the headings Readable Fonts, Headings and Structure, Colour, Layout and Writing Style. The guidelines have been reviewed by researchers at the University of Southampton, who have collated the most recent research on dyslexia and readability.

Typeface, colour, spacing and more

Readable Fonts includes typeface suggestions, as well as font size and letter and word spacing widths. Preferable typefaces include sans-serifs like Arial, Verdana and Tahoma, while it recommends at least 12-15 point size.

Other recommendations include: headings sized at 20% larger than normal text and in bold; using dark coloured text on a light background; avoiding green, red and pink, as these colours are difficult for those with colour blindness; left aligning text; avoiding use of all capitals; and keeping lines to maximum 70 characters. These are just some of the pointers around design and style.

In terms of writing, it suggests using the active rather than passive voice, being as concise as possible and avoiding double negatives.

“Information is part of our lives – everyone should have access”

Abi James, chair at the BDA Technology Committee, is also an accessibility researcher at the University of Southampton, and is part of the team that has helped update the guidelines.

She says that the style guide will be promoted to businesses and schools, in a hope that teachers and employees will use them to inform how they teach or design online and print materials.

“These guidelines are so important, because information is so part of our daily lives now,” she says. “We want everyone to be able to access education and employment. Also, although this is a dyslexia guide, the tips in here will help everybody with reading, such as those with visual impairments, those who are colour blind, older people or those who have English as a second language. With our ageing population and with people working longer, we need to think about everyone who may have problems with reading.”

This year, looking at the spacing between letters and words was a new consideration which hadn’t been included before.

“Previously, people have generally focused a lot on typeface choice and background colours, and not other areas that affect readability,” says James. “It’s not just the font style, but the spacing between the letters, the length of lines, the layout on the page, the columns, the justification. We’re hoping people will start to think about all these things.”

Use at the start of the design process

She says that it is important that designers and educators use the style guide as a tool at the start of the design process, rather than an add-on or “final check” at the end.

“Designers should be thinking about making any content accessible and easy-to-read for as wide an audience as possible – so they should be trying to adhere to these principles as closely as possible from the start,” she says. “It should come into the first stages of design and development, and be embedded within the culture – for example, it should be used for internal communications too.”

With the age of apps and screen-reading, James adds that the guidelines are as pertinent as ever, particularly for user experience (UX) and digital designers. When building apps, she suggests that designers “cut out the clutter” by removing sidebars and retaining only the main body of content, as well as implementing tools such as text becoming more spaced out when someone zooms in on the page.

Engaging a “wider, inclusive” audience

Even for those without dyslexia or visual impairments, implementing rules on inclusivity can make a difference, James adds. “Certain things, such as rules around headings and structure, can help people who don’t have time to read something fully, and just want to scan it.”

As imaginative people, designers will inevitably question whether strictly adhering to guidelines such as these could stifle creativity – but James says a balance needs to be struck between beauty and accessibility.

“Something can be aesthetically pleasing but it also needs to be useable and fulfil the intention of the brief,” she says. “If a designer really wants to engage a wider, inclusive audience, they need to be thinking about these principles.”

The BDA’s Dyslexia Style Guide will be promoted over the coming months in the build-up to Dyslexia Awareness Week, which takes place 1-7 October 2018.

Read the Dyslexia Style Guide 2018 in full here.

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  • anonymous May 30, 2018 at 11:57 am

    I was recently force to move from my job in recruitment for not complying to ‘font regulations’ . According to the recruitment agency I worked for, it was a contractual requirement set by a public sector client to work in a particular font.

    The recruitment firm I worked for are fully aware of my dyslexia, I’d work for the agency in excess of 10 years. To overcome my difficulties I’d would use a particular front style, which was never a problem. In fact , both my clients and colleagues welcome the change.

    However, 9 months on a new team and daily conversation explaining, “I have a disability which may not be psychical BUT dyslexia is a disability – something I can not help”. This did not sit well and I became seen as going against management, and my colleagues.

    I did not change – I could not change – my confidence destroyed – I had been rejected and ostracized by my management and peers because of my dyslexia.

    I welcome these guidelines massively and really hope all companies (both public and private) adopt these guidelines and appreciate neurological disabilities.

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